Will a court pay attention?

April 13, 2021

If I had harbored even an iota of doubt about Junior Chandler’s innocence, it would’ve been vaporized by the podcast episode below.

Most dramatically, the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic’s meticulously assembled “Impossibility Exhibit” demonstrates that Junior was nowhere near the scene of his imaginary crimes….

But is the court paying attention?


Today’s random selection from the Little Rascals Day Care archives….


Who remembers wrongful conviction was overturned?

Keelan Balderson


Keelan Balderson

March 3, 2016

“From the McMartin preschool trial in the United States in the ’80s … not one ‘satanic abuse’ network in the modern context has ever been proven to exist.

“Despite this fact people tend to remember the sensationalism of each case, and the fear and rumors generated by them. Not the final verdict, which has always been acquittal or at least the overturning of a wrongful conviction. The truth of each case gets lost in time….”

– From “Satanic Ritual Abuse: 7 Fictions That Created A Mythology” by Keelan Balderson at WideShut  (March 8, 2015)

What might it feel like, all these years later, encountering people who vaguely remember your prosecution for “satanic ritual abuse” at Little Rascals – but not your exoneration?


It’s not too late to exonerate, Mr. Attorney General

140121CooperJan. 20, 2014

“Eighteen months ago I petitioned Attorney General Roy Cooper to issue a statement of innocence for the Edenton Seven.


“ ‘In 2001 Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift signed a resolution proclaiming the innocence of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials. In time, such victims of the ritual-abuse day-care panic as the Edenton Seven will surely receive similar exoneration. Why not now? Why not in North Carolina? This is an opportunity to demonstrate moral leadership on a national scale.’ ”

“Cooper has yet to respond.”

From “Like Salem’s ‘witches,’ it’s time for NC to exonerate the Edenton Seven,”
my Jan. 19 op-ed column in the News & Observer (cached here) on the 25th anniversary of the first Little Rascals sexual abuse complaint.

Seeking corroboration isn’t disrespectful – it’s useful

141210TalbotDec. 10, 2014

“More than a decade ago, I wrote about the McMartin preschool case, and other satanic ritual child abuse accusations that turned out to be false. Back then, the slogan many supporters of the accusations brandished was, ‘Believe the Children.’ It was an antidote to skepticism about real claims of child abuse, just as today, ‘Believe the Victims’ is a reaction to a long history of callous oversight of rape accusations.

“ ‘Believe the Victims’ makes sense as a starting presumption, but a presumption of belief should never preclude questions. It’s not wrong or disrespectful for reporters to ask for corroboration, or for editors to insist on it. Truth-seeking won’t undermine efforts to prevent campus sexual assault and protect its victims; it should make them stronger and more effective.”

– From “Reporting on Rape” by Margaret Talbot at newyorker.com (Dec. 7)

Given the prosecution’s strategic secrecy, the pursuit of corroboration in the Little Rascals case presented an enormous challenge. But news coverage could been far more skeptical and revealing – perhaps even game-changing. The editor of the News & Observer certainly thought so.

Not everyone was moved by HBO’s McMartin drama

150331IndictmentMarch 31, 2015

“…The watershed event marking the shift in public opinion on these (“satanic ritual abuse” day care) cases was the HBO airing of ‘Indictment: The McMartin Trial’ (watchable here on YouTube) in May 1995, wherein Ray Buckey, the child-molesting villain of the McMartin trial, was recast as the victim of a hysterical conspiracy theory.

“Five years earlier, no major television network would have dared question the infallibility of the testimony of ravished, innocent babes. A network like HBO is closely attuned to shifts in the public mood.

“Such TV dramas and feature films are generally more likely to respond to existing trends in public opinion on controversial issues than to break new ground, and so this docudrama marked a sort of closure on the issue in the public imagination, though the judicial system cannot shift direction so quickly.”

– From “The Metanarrative of Suspicion in Late Twentieth-Century America” by Sandra Baringer (2004)

Eighteen days before HBO broadcast “Indictment,” the North Carolina Court of Appeals had overturned the convictions of Bob Kelly and Dawn Wilson, but Kelly’s torture at the hands of the state was far from over: A year later he would be charged with raping a young girl outside the day care in 1987. Was prosecutor Nancy Lamb unable to “shift direction so quickly” – or simply unwilling?

X-factor in child-witnesses’ accounts: TV

Aug. 9, 2013

“(One) area of uncertainty is the extent to which sexual knowledge is learned by young children through exposure to either explicit or sexually suggestive materials on television, video and movies. Studies indicate that children watch from 14 to 23 hours of television a week with the highest level among preschoolers. About a third of them do so without parental involvement in what they watch.”

– From “Evidence Issues and ‘Lessons’ from State v. Kelly: Litigation of Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse” by Jeffrey L. Miller and W. Michael Spivey, presented at the 6th annual North Carolina Criminal Evidence Seminar, UNC School of Law (April 16, 1993)

Among the “suggestive materials” that aired during the early days of the Little Rascals allegations: “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”

What jurors learned from ‘Every Mother’s Worst Fear’

April 2, 2012

Among the contaminants reported in the deliberations of the first Little Rascals jury was a Redbook article used to profile Bob Kelly as a child molester. Its content never was detailed, so I looked it up (thanks yet again, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library).

Beneath the panic-inducing headline – “Why I’m Every Mother’s Worst Fear” – I was surprised to find virtually nothing relevant to day cares. Instead, the author offered insights such as:

“There are far more child molesters who operate like me than there are those who forcibly kidnap children. What the abductors do makes the headlines. What I do is more common and less noticeable. Most child molesters are established in our communities, known to others as just another good neighbor. We may even be married with kids of our own.”

An editor’s note drove home the point: “Finally, believe a child who reports a sexual overture or encounter, no matter how respectable or unlikely the accused person might seem.”

These descriptions, of course, fit the crazy-making template for ritual-abuse prosecutions:

If he seems like a child abuser, then he is.

If he doesn’t seem like a child abuser, then he is – “no matter how unlikely.”

McMartin Preschool acquittal did little to stem spread of hysteria


May 18, 2018

“Despite the acquittal in [the McMartin Preschool case], the hysteria kept raging there and nationally; mainstream news still gave it credence, police still made arrests, prosecutors still prosecuted, and true believers among psychologists and psychiatrists (and their clients) still believed and proselytized, often with a government imprimatur….

“In a small town in Tidewater North Carolina, children testified that a satanic cult operating a day care center had ritually abused them – and taken them in hot-air balloons to outer space and on a boat into the Atlantic where newborns were fed to sharks; several people were sentenced to long prison terms and served time before their convictions were overturned or charges dismissed.”

– From “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” by Kurt Andersen (2017)

The ripples from McMartin were even more pronounced in Edenton, after prosecutors brought back from California a crucial lesson: Conceal, obscure or destroy the therapists’ notes that would reveal how relentlessly the child-witnesses had been manipulated.